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My family and I wondered how we would make it through last Christmas. For the first time in our lives, there would be an empty seat at the holiday table; a face missing from the family photo; one less present under the tree. Several months earlier, my brother had died after a brave battle with inoperable cancer. Our hearts were still aching. Who felt like celebrating? Christmas had always been such a big event for our family while I was growing up. And even when my siblings and I got married and had families of our own, we always came home for Christmas.

But we did survive that first Christmas without him. We did it by remembering—by looking back with a smile, and sometimes even with laughter, at memories of Christmases gone by. More importantly, we did it by looking forward—by believing in the hope that one day we’d see my brother again.

Sitting around the Christmas tree at my parents’ house that night, we realized that all our hopes for being a whole family again depended on a baby boy born over two thousand years ago. Here’s how the Bible describes the One who brought hope to the world: “For to us a child is born, / to us a son is given, / and the government will be on his shoulders. / And he will be called / Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, / Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Our family needed a Wonderful Counselor: we felt sad and discouraged. We needed a Mighty God: we were weak. We needed an Everlasting Father: we wanted to be held. And we needed a Prince of Peace: our minds longed for rest. In other words, this Baby was exactly what we needed— what the whole world needed.

The Birth of Hope

Who would have thought that comfort and hope would come to the world in the form of a baby? But that’s just what happened. There weren’t many people around that night to witness His birth. Just His mother, Mary, His earthly father, Joseph, and some shepherds who had been tending sheep nearby. The angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed, “ ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’ ” (Luke 2:10, 11).

What exactly was that “good news of great joy”? Simply put, we deserve to die; but Someone was born to die in our place. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Because we’ve sinned, our rightful penalty is death. But one word in this text changes our entire future. That word is gift. Eternal life is a gift.

When Jesus was on earth, His mission was to save a fallen race, a people He had created perfect but who had chosen to sin. Knowing that the result of our sin would be death, He came to offer us hope beyond the grave. One of the best windows into understanding what happens at death and beyond is the story of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend who died. Jesus made it quite clear when He said in John 11:11, “ ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ ”

If this were the only text in the Bible that speaks about death and resurrection, it would be enough to answer many of our questions. Jesus said that death is a sleep, a time to rest. It’s similar to when you go to sleep at night. No matter how hectic or busy your day was, you’re resting, unaware of anything. And just as you wake up after a good night’s sleep, so you will wake up from death. Jesus demonstrated His power over death by raising Lazarus from the grave, and one of these days, He will raise my brother and all others who died having placed their faith in Him. Jesus Himself will wake them up!

The Unopened Gift

Through all the Christmases in my life, I’ve never left a gift unopened under the tree. As a child, my siblings and I would get up before dawn on Christmas, excited to open all our gifts. And even as an adult, I still look forward to unwrapping gifts my family and friends give me. I can’t imagine leaving a gift unopened under our tree—keeping it on the floor in the living room long after Christmas is over. It would be in my way come spring when I go out the patio door to plant my flowers. And in the summer, our daughter and her friends would stumble over it or kick it aside on their way to the backyard.

Yet so many people do this very thing with God’s gift of eternal life. They don’t open it in order to claim it. They know it’s there, but for various reasons, they leave it unopened. And the gift of eternal life is waiting for you today—but the offer won’t be available forever. When Jesus returns to earth someday, He will be coming for those who have already accepted His gift of eternal life.

Jesus came the first time to give up His life. He’ll come the second time to give us life.

Unlike the first time when just a few witnessed His arrival, the second time, everyone will see Him. As it says in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”

Isn’t that incredible? The One who came as a helpless baby will come again with enough power to even raise the dead! It won’t matter how they died or how long they’ve been dead—they will be resurrected! Then verse 17 goes on to say what will happen to those still living at His coming: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

When you think about it, it doesn’t really matter what state we’re in when Jesus comes—whether dead or alive. The end result will be the same: we will be with the Lord forever! And death will be forever gone.

What You’ve Always Wanted

Now that our daughter is a teenager, our family enjoys watching videos of Christmases past. One of my favorite videos shows her at five, opening a gift she’d had her heart set on. Sitting there on the floor in her green-footed pajamas, she opens her gift. But there aren’t any squeals of delight—no jumping up and down. Instead, she holds the gift as if she’s just opened a treasure, and says in quiet awe, “It’s what I’ve always wanted!”

This Christmas, you’ve been given an unimaginable gift. Unwrap it. Accept the gift of eternal life by accepting Jesus as your Savior. And once you do—once you begin to experience life with Jesus— you’ll discover that it’s what you’ve always wanted.

Then Christmas will take on a totally different meaning for you. Sure, you’ll still enjoy the decorations, the music, and that great holiday meal. You’ll still celebrate the birth of the One who was born two thousand years ago. But all the gifts you open this Christmas can’t begin to compare to the greatest gift of all—your eternal life in God’s coming kingdom!

Which Way Does Christmas Point?

by Nancy Canwell
From the December 2008 Signs